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It's interview season. I've noticed that many of the applicants in this round are already assistant professors at other institutions.

Is there any known number or record on how frequently (let's say, across North America) assistant professors who don't have tenure yet switch institutions?

The market is already incredibly competitive. The academic institution has spent thousands of dollars on hiring a candidate and wants to retain them. If an assistant professor goes to another school and gets hired, then what you might end up with is this cycle of highly-ranking candidates swirling around and leaving empty positions in their wake. Alternatively, one might presume that the hiring system must be inefficient if, in a competitive environment, a university is unable to retain its hires.

This article (and associated comments) for example, illustrates how many faculty have changed institutions for various reasons; I also know personally at least two assistant professors who left their original institution to move to a new one within the first few years of them being hired.

Depending on the answer to this question, I would have a number of follow-ups (Do schools hate it if you apply elsewhere, and would they fire you? How does a department react when a recent hire leaves? Why do people switch? Are applicants often successful? Do people switch more than once?) but I'll start with this first.

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I don't think there is any general answer to this. In the case of quite a few fancy research universities, non-tenured faculty are pretty much never offered tenure; to get tenure at these places, you have to already be a senior superstar somewhere else. In the case of community colleges, it's extremely rare for full-time faculty to leave before getting tenure, and when they do, it's usually because they messed up very, very badly. –  Ben Crowell Mar 13 at 0:11
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3 Answers 3

My several-decades' observation suggests that this does not happen often at all, in all sorts of economic climates. Only the rare person whose work is both "hot" and who wants to play job-change games will do this.

Yes, applying for other jobs does tend to alienate many (not all) faculty at one's current institution. But if one can "get away with it", then it may be profitable, even while people resent it.

I have been acquainted with situation in which there was anticipated to be some prejudicial nonsense at the tenure-decision time, so that people took a year's leave and found other (potentially permanent, but supposedly temporary) jobs as back-up. This is only sensible. Yes, people at the "home" institution used this as leverage to disparage the candidate... but one imagines that these people were wanting to disparage the candidate anyway, so the fact that a person acted reasonably and in self-defense was irrelevant.

Indeed, I think the most common, and most sensible, case of such job applications is exactly when there's some anticipation that the tenure case will not go well. In some very rare cases a person has out-of-the-blue done something surprisingly good, and can launch themselves into a higher stratum of academe. :)

In most cases, such job apps would be a pointlessly antagonistic thing to do...

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While I can't say that it's common, among two institutions I know at least two professors who switched Universities when they were assistant professors, and at least one more who looked but didn't end up moving. So this appears to happen, sometimes, long before tenure is even up for discussion. –  Irwin Mar 13 at 0:29
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Well, first of all, I'm living proof that it does happen (twice!) from time to time. My sense (which is purely personal, and thus can only speak to the situation in mathematics) is that applying for other jobs before tenure is very common, and even people who aren't especially serious about moving will do it "just to test the waters" or "because it's the thing to do" especially right as they are coming up to tenure. Having been in a position to read files for job searches over the past couple of years, a lot come from people who already have tenure track positions. It's considerably less common for offers to actually get made (in part because of a vague sense that people may not be especially serious about moving or that they may just want it as a bargaining chip), and less common still for people to move, though I'm far from the last person I know who's done so, and I know of several other instances of people having outside job offers that they ended up turning down.

I think Suresh has the reasons down; for me, the issue has been the two-body problem. I think generally people are quite understanding about the issue, and I haven't (directly at least) encountered hostility from my former colleagues about moving (and indeed I've cowritten papers with 3 people at institutions I've left since leaving), though I have gotten occasional jokes.

My experience is that the general reaction of schools is to negotiate to convince you to stay (or come back after you've left); I've never heard of anyone being fired because of applications elsewhere.

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It does happen. But it's not that common. I've been on faculty search committees for a number of years now, and out of the hundreds of applications I've seen, it's very rare to see pre-tenure faculty from other institutions apply. If and when they do, it's because

  • they're worried about their tenure case
  • there's a two-body problem (this is in fact the most "reasonable" reason to move)
  • they have other reasons for wanting to move (location, opportunity)

But it's not a frequent thing. Because it's hard to do: clocks have to be negotiated, research programs have to be uprooted, students have to be moved (and let me not even start on the logistics of moving a family that might just be getting settled in the first place)

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